No condom? Just shower

Former South African president is acquitted of rape, but is guilty of setting his country back.

Published May 10, 2006 2:21PM (EDT)

Memo to South Africa:

1. If a woman appears to sit provocatively in a short skirt, she wants to have sex, with YOU.

2. Showering after sex can prevent HIV infection.

3. Amendment to No. 1: If a woman appears to sit provocatively in a short skirt, it is your duty to have sex with her. In fact, to refuse would violate her rights.

(Now that's a march I don't think we'll be organizing anytime soon.)

In an opinion piece on the acquittal on rape charges of former South African President Jacob Zuma, 64, the New York Times today derided not the verdict per se, but the messages sent to South Africans in the process of reaching it.

Zuma faced charges from the 31-year-old, HIV-positive daughter of one his peers. He has remained highly popular, especially among his fellow Zulus, and is said to be considering a reentry into political life.

The judge in the case (South Africa has no jury system) found that the sex in question had been consensual. "But during the trial, Mr. Zuma admitted to behavior so irresponsible that his future political activity deserves to be limited to voting," stated the Times.

Such as? See above. Zuma also said he knew the woman was HIV-positive but did not use a condom because he figured the risk of transmission was low. Also, you know, he showered. Needless to say, these statements left AIDS prevention workers practically speechless. "Mind you," noted the Times, "this is the man who once led the country's National AIDS Council." Gah.

Women's rights groups also complained that Zuma's defense team had improperly probed the accuser's sexual past, which reportedly includes at least three previous rapes, one when she was 5. Zuma's team sought to paint the woman as unreliable and manipulative. No one made parallel inquiries into Zuma's past.

Zuma later apologized for his actions and sought to play down the whole shower business. But still. South Africa cannot afford to hear mixed messages -- via Zuma's original description of the incident, or the tenor of the trial -- about HIV transmission or the reality of rape. (More Zuma gems on the latter can be found here.) "Health officials say a sense of male entitlement to sex is a major contributor to the country's high rape rates," says the Times. (According to People Opposing Women Abuse, a South African women's group, one woman in the country is raped every 26 seconds. This would be one of the highest rape rates in the world.)

"Male sexual attitudes also fuel South Africa's AIDS epidemic," the Times continues. "Mr. Zuma's shower comment, which he justified yesterday, lighted up the phone banks at AIDS hot lines with callers hopeful that postcoital showering could prevent H.I.V. infections. South Africa already had several government officials whose dubious statements about AIDS set back the cause of fighting the disease; now Mr. Zuma joins them. Those who are now welcoming him back to political life -- including the secretary general of the African National Congress -- are doing the country a disservice. He has been acquitted of rape but is still unfit for office," concludes the Times.

While the case has polarized the nation, some see the possibility that this step back could become two steps forward. The very culture that silences rape -- which apparently often occurs within families or in exchange for good grades, leaving girls under tremendous pressure not to report it -- is now, at least, open for conversation. "The national discussion the case is sparking could be transformative," states the Christian Science Monitor, suggesting that for South Africa, this could be an "Anita Hill moment" -- one of those short-term losses that may at least have launched a march toward longer-term victory.

Ultimately, I'm not convinced that our Anita Hill moment opened up a nuanced conversation about anything but Coke cans, but I'll cede the floor to Judith February of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "'The more people speak out' in support of rape-related justice, as some prominent figures have been doing," she told the Monitor, "'the more women will be encouraged' to begin to see rape as unacceptable." Guess it's a start.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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